Opinion

What the University Presidents Got Right and Wrong About Antisemitic Speech

As I watched the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania struggle last week to respond to harsh congressional questioning about the prevalence of antisemitism on their campuses, I had a singular thought: Censorship helped put these presidents in their predicament and censorship will not help them escape.

To understand what I mean, we have to understand what, exactly, was wrong — and right — with their responses in the now-viral exchange with Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York. The key moment occurred when Stefanik asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate school policies. The answers the presidents gave were lawyerly versions of “it depends” or “context matters.”

There was an immediate explosion of outrage, and the president of Penn, Elizabeth Magill, resigned on Saturday. But this is genocide we’re talking about! How can “context” matter in that context? If that’s not harassment and bullying, then what is?

But I had a different response. I’m a former litigator who spent much of my legal career battling censorship on college campuses, and the thing that struck me about the presidents’ answers wasn’t their legal insufficiency, but rather their stunning hypocrisy. And it’s that hypocrisy, not the presidents’ understanding of the law, that has created a campus crisis.

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